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'This Is A Test Of Our Time,' Biden Says About Voting Rights Battles

President Biden addresses the issue of voting rights Tuesday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
President Biden addresses the issue of voting rights Tuesday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Updated July 13, 2021 at 6:01 PM ET

Amid Republican efforts to enact new state-level election rules, President Biden on Tuesday gave a stark warning about the future of voting rights.

"This is a test of our time," Biden said in a long-promised speech from Philadelphia.

The president spoke a day after Texas Democratic state lawmakers left their state in protest of GOP voting legislation and traveled to Washington, D.C., where they hope to put pressure on Biden and Congress to take federal action on the topic.

Biden portrayed the current fight over voting rights as one of the great moments of morality for the United States and said the issue would require support from across the aisle.

"We'll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up, for God's sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote," Biden said, referencing Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

"Have you no shame?" he asked of his GOP counterparts.

Biden warned that Republican-led efforts across the country to restrict voting access threaten democracy, but he largely sidestepped the many challenges in Congress to pass the voting rights legislation that's prioritized by Democrats.

Texans come to Washington

U.S. Democratic Reps. Marc Veasey (center, left) and Lloyd Doggett of Texas are joined by Democratic members of the Texas Legislature at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
U.S. Democratic Reps. Marc Veasey (center, left) and Lloyd Doggett of Texas are joined by Democratic members of the Texas Legislature at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

More than 50 Texas Democrats arrived in Washington on Monday night, depriving the Republican-led state House of Representatives of the two-thirds of the 150-member body needed for a quorum to conduct a vote. The Democrats are seeking to block action on a GOP-sponsored voting measure they say amounts to voter suppression.

The Texas legislation would eliminate some provisions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots, such as drive-through voting. It would also empower partisan poll watchers and add new requirements for mail-in voting.

In a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol ahead of Biden's speech, the Texas Democrats put the ball squarely in Washington's court.

"We are living right now on borrowed time in Texas, and we can't stay here indefinitely," Texas state Rep. Rhetta Bowers acknowledged outside the Capitol. "We need Congress to act now."

They left Texas under the close scrutiny of the nation, including the state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott.

Abbott has threated to arrest the lawmakers upon their return to Texas and compel them to participate in the current special session, which was set in part to take up the voting bills and ends Aug. 7. Abbott vowed to call "special session after special session" to force lawmakers eventually to take up the measures.

"Texas Democrats' decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve," a statement from Abbott said. "As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state."

Calls for a "Lyndon Johnson moment"

Many Republicans say new voting measures are needed to restore confidence in and the integrity of election processes changed during the pandemic. They cite concerns about fraud, even though there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

In response, Democrats have coalesced around sweeping federal voter protections.

The U.S. House has approved the primary Democratic bill, the For the People Act, but it has stalled in the Senate due to a GOP filibuster.

Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson said she did not come to Washington, D.C., "to take a vacation" but to make sure "that my constituents' rights will not be stripped from them." She added that Republicans in the Texas Legislature "may have changed the messiah from Jesus to Trump, but I haven't."

U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, called on Biden to act to preserve voting rights. "What we really need today is a Lyndon Johnson moment," Doggett said, referring to the late president's signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"We need the president and the vice president and every Democrat in this Senate working together to preserve American democracy," Doggett said.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, dismissed the Texas lawmakers' move as a "political stunt."

"Rather than do their jobs in Texas, yesterday House Democrats abandoned both our state and the millions of Texans that they represent," Cornyn said on the Senate floor, noting that other legislation besides voting is also now stalled.

Progressives protest

Progressive activists are also turning up the pressure on Biden. They planned to rally to push the president to use his bully pulpit more forcefully to make the case for enacting the For the People Act.

"He could go around the country and give speeches about it very specifically that would educate voters so that they get on board and they tell their senators that it needs to be passed, and he can rally support for it," said Vicki Miller of Indivisible Philadelphia, one of the groups protesting outside of Biden's speech. "This is what presidents do when they prioritize major legislation. And he could be doing that, and we want him to start now."

Miller also said she hoped to see Biden make the case for amending the Senate's filibuster rules, specifically for the purpose of passing voting rights legislation. Current rules require 60 votes to overcome a challenge and move legislation forward — a threshold Democrats haven't been able to meet in this effort.

NPR political reporter Juana Summers contributed to this report.

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